Convictions for violent crimes against women are at an all-time high, but what about online ‘violence’?

Ellouise LongEllouise Long is a PhD candidate in Middlesex University’s Psychology Department. Her research in the field of forensic psychology focuses on online behaviour and internet trolling in particular. She is currently working on the ‘Developing Research Informed Good Practice Policing and Industry Collaborative Models in Preventing Online Child Abuse and Profiling Child Victims’ project with the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies.

Last week it was noted that convictions for violent crimes against women and girls have reached an all-time high, but it is important to consider the vitriol and misogynistic abuse women are subjected to on the internet on a daily basis.

It has been accepted by prosecutors that the internet has become a significant tool in contacting potential victims online, including posting indecent images and messages. This has substantially widened the net for people seeking potential victims.

Are women being silenced online?

The recent clamp down on revenge porn has shown a move in the right direction for protecting women online. However, it seems there is still a fair way to go before women can feel safe in their online presence and able to freely post their views online without fear of reprisal and/or a violent backlash from the public.

Sadly, for women it is a normative expectation that they will be ridiculed with sexist and aggressively charged threats if you post your opinion online.

Women in the public eye in particular appear to bare the brunt of such vitriol, including MP Stella Creasy, historian Mary Beard and feminist Caroline Criado-Perez – to name just a few of the high profile women recently threatened with violence.

#Gamergate and the backlash Anita Sarkeesian received following her expressing the need for less misogyny in online games also demonstrates the sheer volume and power of the internet in its attempt to silence women. Death and rape threats, or indeed less offensive incivilities, should not be something we readily accept as a part of, or as a consequence of, having an online presence.

Is there a line that is crossed such that when so-called trolling crosses the lines of legality, it becomes something else entirely?

Trolling as a means of online aggression

Trolling as a practice is almost as old as the internet itself. However, recently there appears to have been a transformation in that it is no longer viewed as mischievous but rather as potentially harmful for those who encounter it.

Currently the term ‘trolling’ appears to be used rather unhelpfully and indiscriminately to describe any type of unwanted online behaviour. It is therefore important to consider what behaviour constitutes trolling.

A woman looking at a computer screen in the dark

Are rape and death threats actually a form of trolling? Or are they really a form of hate crime online? Is there a line that is crossed such that when so-called trolling crosses the lines of legality, it becomes something else entirely?

One thing that is certain is that trolling is a term that is currently being used to minimise acts of serious online aggression and this can potentially have a major impact on the wellbeing of those targeted.

Anita Sarkeesian, for example, was forced to cancel a talk at Utah State University after she received threats that there would be “the deadliest school shooting” in US history if she did attend.

This I think demonstrates how real and serious online threats are – whether they are “just trolling” or the true wishes of individuals. We need to attempt to differentiate between the essentially harmless (albeit possibly tasteless or offensive) trolling we have lived with as a society for some time, and that which is much more serious and poses a genuine threat to individuals and society as a whole.

Death and rape threats, or indeed less offensive incivilities, should not be something we readily accept as a part of, or as a consequence of, having an online presence.

The Importance of the ongoing debate – Sexual Violence Conference 2015

As can be seen, despite the promising news of an all-time high in convictions for violence against women, the debate is far from over and is in fact ever-evolving with the development of technology.

One such discussion will be held at an upcoming sexual violence conference hosted by Middlesex University in September which will bring together practitioners and academics from all over the country and the world.

At this conference I will be presenting a paper which discusses the rising issue of sexual aggression by trolls online. I will focus on three recent cases: the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting in December 2012, the Emma Watson HeforShe speech and the experience of Anita Sarkeesian.

As technology widens the scope and magnitude for the effects of sexual aggression, it is critical that we come together to acknowledge and discuss these matters as they develop. A key component of my talk is the issue of women being silenced online as a consequence of such abuse and how we may begin to tackle this issue and protect ourselves. Lastly, approaches and responses to online sexual aggression will be considered including the popular notion of ‘do not feed the troll’.

The Sexual Violence Conference takes place on Thursday 17 and Friday 18 September 2015 at Middlesex University, bringing together practitioners, policy makers and academics who work in the field of sexual violence, to share their knowledge and understanding.

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